The Municipal Building – a Beaux-Arts Skyscraper

In 1898, when Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx were consolidated into the 5 million-strong metropolis of Greater New York , the old City Hall proved no longer sufficient to house city government. The Municipal Building was subsequently erected to fulfill this need and still stands as one of the largest government office buildings in the world.

The Municipal Building was designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, one of most prominent and respected architectural firms in the city known for such edifices as the original Pennsylvania Station, Columbia University’s library, the Washington Square Arch, the Metropolitan Club, and the University Club, just to name a few.

The firm was renowned for its classically inspired designs rooted in traditional styles. The Municipal Building was its first attempt at a skyscraper even though quite a few skyscrapers were already sprouting in the city at the time. Despite the Municipal Building being constructed in the 20th century (by 1914), its design was heavily influenced by the “City Beautiful,” a movement that dominated late 19th century architecture and advocated for beautiful-looking public buildings.

The imposing central arch of the Municipal Building was modeled after the Roman Arch of Constantine, while the vault was inspired by the entrance of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. In Roman fashion, the arch is adorned by sculptural reliefs depicting civic virtues: Progress, Civic Duty, Guidance and Executive Power, Civic Pride, and Prudence. Civic Duty, on the left, is a woman personifying the city, with child by her side holding the city’s seal. On the right of the arch is Civic Pride, receiving tribute from her citizens. The panels between the second floor windows are the emblems of the city’s municipal departments.  

At the top of the building stands the colossal, gilded Civic Fame by sculptor Adolph Weinman. There is no consensus on the actual height of the statue. Some sources put it at six m (20 ft) while others claim it’s as tall as 7.6 m (25 ft). In any rate, it makes Civic Fame New York City’s second-largest statue after the Statue of Liberty. She is depicted as a woman holding a crown with five turrets symbolizing New York City’s five boroughs. The model for the statue was the famed and tragic Audrey Munson, dubbed the American Venus, who was the most popular sculptors’ model of her day and hailed as the most perfectly formed woman in the world.

The Municipal Building holds the distinction of being the first building in New York City to incorporate a subway station. The entrance to the subway station is covered by a spectacular arcade lined with Guastavino tiles.

The Municipal Building impressed Josef Stalin so much that its design served as a blueprint for grandiose public building style characteristic of the Stalin-era Soviet Union. Moscow University’s main building along with so-called “Seven Sisters” was modeled on the New York’s Municipal Building.

The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission described the Municipal Building as “…an imposing building of real beauty… one of the few monumental skyscrapers of the early part of the Twentieth Century.” Indeed, the combination of Italian Renaissance and Roman-style architectural detail with the scale of a skyscraper makes the building unique and truly characteristic of New York.

  • Address: 1 Centre St, New York
  • Architecture firm: McKim, Mead & White
  • Built: 1909–1914
  • Architectural styles: Beaux-Arts, Ancient Roman, Renaissance revival
  • Height: 559 feet (170 m)
  • 40 stories

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